Category Archives: Big Ideas

Why is Rey such a great hero?

***SPOILERS AHEAD***

Heroes are an interesting character type. Not every protagonist is a hero, far from it. Most stories are about relatively ordinary people going on journeys and overcoming challenges. But there is no challenge too great for the hero. Need a dragon slain, an innocent rescued, a Death Star explodeyed? The hero is your man. Or woman. Or non-gender binaried person.

READ MORE : What is the Kenobi Theorem?

Anyone who tries writing the archetypal hero eventually hits the the Hard Question of all epic narratives. Why is this human, among all these other humans, the hero? What makes them special? From whence do their powers come? And buried inside this Hard Question is an even harder one…why should we the audience care? We know heroes are never what they seem, so why should we for the timespan of this story believe that this one hero is?

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Haynes’ Star Wars Death Star Owner’s Technical Manual

This little essay is going to get to Rey, the young hero of The Force Awakens, soon enough. But in preparation lets just acknowledge that Rey is, without argument, the most perfect hero of 21st century storytelling to date. Throw some other names in the comments if you wish, you won’t find one that beats Rey for absolute raw heroic brilliance. We’ll get to why.

There have, in the history of epic storytelling, been a few answers to the “why” of heroism. The most common, by far, is fatherhood. And it is always through a father that the heroes heroic lineage is established. Epic heroes from Rama to Arthur have been defined by being the son of a king or lord of some kind. In Star Wars Luke Skywalker is of course the son of Anakin Skywalker, that bloodline being the source of his strength with The Force.

“Contrast that with Kylo Ren, whose upbringing has given him, to say the least, crippling daddy issues.”

How many sons of rich fathers do you know who are heroic? How many powerful men can you name who are heroic? Even if we accept that occasionally some spoilt trust-fund kid MIGHT be heroic, experience suggests it’s despite their bloodline, not because of it. Snowboarding holidays in Aspen, yes. Sacrificing all for a noble lost cause? Not so much. Even though we continue to repeat it endlessly, the patriarchal inheritance myth doesn’t really hold water today, if it ever did.

God. Or gods, are the other source of heroic powers. Like many classical heroes, Theseus is said to be the son of the god Poseidon, which in turn gives him strength to rescue the city of Athens. Many heroes of Indian myth were avatars of the gods Shiva or Vishnu (an interestingly modern idea, the avatar, in our era of virtual realities). George Lucas roled out the Christian version of this one by making Anakin Skywalker a “virgin birth”. I probably don’t need to work too hard to dispel the credibility of divinely sourced heroism. Few now believe in gods of this kid, or in heroes as their children.

luke-skywalker-star-wars-force-awakens
New hope…or chosen one trope?

 

The Chosen One is the modern, secular equivalent of these outdated origin stories. Neo (Or Neil as I call him) in the Matrix isn’t the hero for any reason other than he just is, alright? He’s been chosen by…someone…to save everybody. The problem with The Chosen One trope is, it doesn’t actually answer the question. Why has THIS random dude been chosen? What is it about them that means they can triumph against the odds? This trope is used in wish fulfilment narratives like the recent, utterly awful Armada by Ernest Cline, where the only point of the hero is to stand in for the reader and let them fantasise about effortless success and glory without sacrifice.

Dull.

Rey’s heroism is built on a very different foundation, that has two main pillars.

The first is adversity. Director JJ Abrams spins a red herring narrative to make us all ask who Rey’s father is, but the answer is, it doesn’t matter. The Rey who kicks ass isn’t the child of that father, they are the child of almost twenty years spent alone as a scavenger on Jakku. That adversity has shaped Rey’s spirit into a strong form. Contrast that with Kylo Ren, whose upbringing has given him, to say the least, crippling daddy issues. It’s never in doubt that Rey will kick Kylo’s pampered butt when they finally get to it, because she has had to live the life of a badass, while Kylo knows deep down that he’s only a pretender.

The second is choice.

 

Both Rey and Finn become heroes because they choose, again and again, to throw off power. And it’s the choice that is key here. They aren’t born to this, it isn’t a matter of fate. Finn, in particular, has been conditioned from birth to comply to power, but CHOOSES not to. Every choice Rey and Fin make takes them a step further on the heroes journey, and every step is freely chosen. The outcome is a story of a young woman and a black man beating the hell out of patriarchal power structures, a truly contemporary heroic tale if ever there was one.

It’s not surprising then that some people haven’t reacted all that well to Finn and Rey. People who’ve been brought up to believe that being a rich white male will automatically make them the hero of the story face a rude awakening in a world where it’s the adversity we overcome, and the choices we make on the path, that truly define our heroic value. There’s still plenty of stories about indolent princes with god complexes for those spoilt boys to enjoy, Star Wars just isn’t one of them any more.

The rest of us can find new hope in Star Wars. We can’t change the circumstances of our birth, and we certainly can’t claim to be children of gods. We aren’t the chosen one, because there’s nobody in the real world with the power to choose. But we all face adversity, and we all have the power of our own choices. The reason our hearts sing when Rey finally takes up the lightsaber in The Force Awakens, is because the heroic part inside us all wakes up to watch. That’s why we need heroic tales, because once the hero inside is awakened, they can never truly sleep again.

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Hope you enjoyed this little essay on heroism. Come follow me on twitter! @damiengwalter

Writing is the best therapy

Perhaps I overstate my case. If writing isn’t THE best therapy. It’s a very good one. And an excellent article at Harvard Business Review sheds some light on why.

I am not alone in believing that writing can have a stress reducing and revelatory effect. A research psychologist at the University of Texas, James Pennebaker, has conducted a number of controlled experiments that confirm the effectiveness of writing as a therapeutic tool. He found that writing about thoughts and feelings arising from a traumatic or stressful event—what he calls expressive writing—helped many people cope with the emotional fallout of the events, and they experienced less mental and physical damage in the long run.

Pennebaker also found that writing had long-term effects on diseases such as asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, and arthritis. It turns out that when people write (or use dictation) approximately twenty minutes a day for three to four consecutive days (preferably at the end of the day), they will likely have fewer medical visits (half the rate of the people who don’t write or use dictation).

The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K Le Guin
The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K Le Guin

I worked with writing for many years in therapeutic settings, and can add some first hand observations on the therapeutic value of writing. Have you ever imagined a story in deep, immersive detail and then sat down to write it, only to find that all you have are a few shredded images and shades of emotion? (This is, incidentally, why writers learn to dream on the page, as dreaming done off it is largely wasted effort.) We’re wired to believe that our thoughts are whole and complete. But my experience is that our minds befuddle us with mere fragments of ideas. It’s only when you sit to write them down that the thoughts take on concrete form in words. Writing is, in the most literal terms, thinking.

The problem with those fragmentary, illusory thoughts is that the mind can turn them over and over forever without reaching any useful conclusion. If that’s true with stories, it’s twice as true with worries. Bad memories and fears for the future sit in our mind, half born, but filling us with anxiety. Which becomes stress. Which in turn becomes all of the chronic physical conditions noted above, and many more.

The act of writing our worries down forces them to take form. 9 times out of 10 we realise the worry has no form, or that missed essential facts make it irrelevant. Your mind is worrying on a trip to the dentist that will be terribly painful. When you write the worry down, you realise the dentist won’t hurt at all, and will actually relieve the pain you are already feeling. On the occasions the worry is real, writing it down can help place the problem in the context of our life as a whole, and achieve kinds of healing that are much harder when the fear is unexpressed.

All writing has therapeutic value, but sitting to write about traumatic experiences can be in itself traumatic.

You have to be careful about using the tool, however. Pennebaker cautions that writing about trauma may initially trigger temporary distress. He also emphasizes that the timing of the writing matters. Studies have shown that people who write about a traumatic event immediately after it has occurred may actually feel worse after writing about it, possibly because they are not yet ready to face it. Pennebaker advises his clients to wait at least one or two months after a traumatic event before writing about it.

Therapeutic writing is best done with some guidance from a fellow writer, or if alone, at a time and place where you can banish the negative emotions after you have raised them. I do my own writing practice in the early morning, when the clear light of a new day can burn away feelings of anger, hurt or other suffering that the “morning pages” might bring up.

Read more about writing and the art of creative recovery in the work of Julia Cameron or explore meditation and wordplay with Gail Sher’s One Contnuous Mistake

The teachings of Alan Watts animated by the makers of South Park

Yes, the creators of South Park have given many gifts to the world. Now they’ve turned their attention to Buddhism and Zen philosopher Alan Watts by animating a selection of his teachings, in their usually hilarious and irreverent style. It’s wonderful. Press play and enjoy.

And match Watt’s spoken word with his written thoughts in The Way of Zen and This Is It.

The five spiritual principles that lead to true power

Power is an inescapable aspect of modern life. Our work places, social lives and even families are often made harder by the struggle for power, status, money and control. Everyone hates “office politics” but we all get sucked in to the dynamics of human power far more often than we would like. But sometimes the path to power is as indirect as the steps we take to wholehearted living.

Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the world’s most respected teachers of Buddhism. A Vietnamese monk who was exiled from his country because of his activism during the American war, he has since gone on to found monasteries and teach Buddhism to millions around the world. Hanh’s work in the Zen Buddhist tradition is deceptively simple, focusing on every day tasks like walking, or washing the dishes, as gateways in to the present moment.

The Art of Power by Thich Nhat Hanh

In The Art of Power, Thich Nhat Hanh puts forward a radically different definition of power. To be powerful is not to have a big house or car, is not to control armies, lead a Fortune 500 corporation, or be a billionaire. We pursue these things only because we believe – quite falsely – that once we have them we will be happy. But it is happiness itself that is true power.

“When you are happy, it is not difficult to earn enough money to live comfortably and simply. It is much easier to make the money that you need when you are solid and free. If you are happy, you are more likely to be comfortable in any situation. You are not afraid of anything. If you have the five spiritual powers and you lose your job, you don’t suffer much. You know how to live simply, and you can continue to be happy. You know that sooner or later you will get another job, and you are open to all possibilities.”

The five spiritual powers that Thich Nhat Hanh teaches are at the core of Buddhism, but expressed in such simple and down to earth ways that even the most most skeptical atheist can likely find some guidance in these spiritual principles:

ONE – Have faith in happiness. Unless you have some faith that you can be happy, and that being happy can come before having money, fame and status, you’ll never stop believing that money, fame or status need to come first. You have to take a leap of faith, and trust that your own happiness will catch you.

TWO – Be diligent in cultivating happiness. It’s hard to be happy when you keep doing things that make you unhappy. Gambling, drinking, arguing, negativity of all kinds, is addictive. While positive actions like eating well, exercising or growing friendships can feel much harder. But if you’re diligent in pursuing happiness, it will grow.

THREE – Be in the here and now. Mindfulness – being present in the moment, rather than lost in thoughts of past or future – is central to Buddhism, and increasingly widely understood beyond Buddhist teachings. But it’s hard! It’s only in the present moment that we can notice our thoughts, and sense our bodies, to really see the causes of our unhappiness – and our happiness.

FOUR – Get concentrating. The more time we spend in present awareness, the better we are able to concentrate on specific tasks. Anything from drinking a cup of tea, to performing a violin concerto. The better we concentrate, the better we do our tasks, and the happier we are.

FIVE – Insight is the goal. Faith, diligence, mindfulness and concentration build on one another to help us arrive at insights. These can be personal – realising that a relationship has become bad and needs to be fixed. Or they can be more universal – understanding a complex idea like interbeing. It’s these insights that make our happiness long term and lasting, far beyond the transitory “happiness” we assign to wealth or great fame.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s ideas as I have described them are simple, and he continues to expand up them in The Art of Power. The full book is a short but tremendously valuable read. It is well accompanied by his early text Peace Is In Every Step, and the excellent After The Ecstasy, The Laundry by Jack Kornfield.

Writing is hard because we like it that way

My friend and fellow word-herder Will Buckingham has something  to say about the pleasure – and pain – of writing. In short Mr. Buckingham believes writers like to big up the misery experienced while writing in order make ourselves look all brooding, dark and mysterious, instead of the shallow pleasure seekers we truly are. Well, Mr Buckingham I have only this to say to you.

No Comment.

The world is full of people doing difficult things. It’s astonishing. The prevailing orthodoxy that people are, at root, lazy — as if human beings are little Aristotelian universes, and need some kind of outside prompting, some primum mobile, to get things going — is simply nonsense. Sometimes, to be sure, people are doing difficult things out of necessity; but very often, people are doing difficult things because difficulty can be fun.

via The Pleasure and Difficulty of Writing | Will Buckingham.

Well, maybe just a brief comment.

I’ve been listening to The Second Machine Age recently (audiobooks while jogging are my primary non-fiction consumption opportunity) It’s an interesting book on the far reaching effects of workplace automation and the exponential growth in computer power. Boiled down the book’s message is that the few remaining “jobs” in the near future will go to super intelligent, super creative workaholics while the rest of humankind malingers around in poverty. It’s an argument somewhat undermined because The Second Machine Age is a book that understands machines much better than it understands people.

People don’t hate work because it is hard. We hate work because it is routine and repetitive IE it is easy. The “hard” part of most jobs is that they are done for exploitative corporations and bureaucracies intent on stripping value out of workers. As Mr Buckingham makes clear, humans actually love doing difficult things. And a writer is defined by their love for the difficult, complex and sometimes murderously frustrating act of writing. We don’t need to worry about people sitting around watching TV and eating pies if we liberate the from work. Most people who slob around in that way do so because their creative spirit has been crushed by work. If we took the burden of uncreative, exploitative jobs from the shoulders of humans, they would actually work much harder, at truly creative work like writing.

Success. It’s not what you think it is.

The problem with success is, it never ends.

We talk a lot about success even when we don’t use the word. Who has the best job. The biggest house. The handsomest lover. I’d make a poetic list but you get the idea. As  humans we waste most of our time chasing after success, in one form or another. Who has the most? How did they get it? And how do we get our own?

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That fearsome beauty is the buddhist Wheel of Life.  With its demons, ghosts and gods It may look supernatural, but in fact it is all about the real world that we live in. It illustrates what buddhists call Samsara, the cycle of material existence. If it looks familiar, that’s because Samsara is what we in Western christian culture call heaven and hell. But in buddhist culture heaven and hell aren’t somewhere else. We make them here on earth, as part of the cycle of Samsara.

It’s a cycle because the Wheel of Life never stops turning. Buddhists divide Samsara in to six realms, the lowest are pretty hellish and the highest are rather heavenly.  Living creatures struggle to progress around the wheel so they can escape hell and live in heaven. But the cycle is an illusion. Once living creatures have rested in heaven a while, they are sent back to hell, to begin the cycle again.

Figure

At the heart of the Wheel of Life are a pig, a snake and a rooster. Imagine a hamster wheel, but instead of a hamster you have these three animals, and they are always chasing one another, so driving the Wheel of Life forever. Remember Tom and Jerry and their bulldog pal Spike from the Warner Bros cartoons? These animals are a lot like that.

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Of course the world isn’t literally turned by a pig, snake and rooster. These are symbols for three basic human behaviours. Craving, aversion and delusion. I prefer to call them greed, hate and delusion. Those are better translations for Western minds. We act out these behaviours all the time. When we see cake we get greedy for more. We hate the cold and try to escape it. And we fall easily in to delusions, like obsessing about how our hair looks. Who cares? We do, because we’re deluded.

“If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same”

If by Rudyard Kipling

So this is success. It’s acting in greedy, hateful and deluded ways to get the top job, the big house, and lots of people pretending to be your friend so they can get at what you have. It’s being the King, the Boss, the Star. And  it’s the illusory belief that these things will last when they won’t, and that they are better than the alternative when they aren’t. Take a look at the world around you. How many people are on the treadmill, running the rat race, climbing the ladder, and walking the eternal cycle of Samsara? How often do you find yourself making the greedy, hateful or deluded choice to get ahead?

That’s most of us, most of the time.

Siddhartha Gautama – an Indian prince who gave up the family trade to become a bum, then later taught some cool ideas about being free and living well – suggests an alternative. Instead of acting with greed, act with generosity. Instead of acting with hatred, act with kindness. And instead of being deluded, try and see the truth. Your haircut doesn’t matter. It truly doesn’t.

Buddhism calls this being skillful. because it’s hard, and requires skill. Greed is your trained response, so to be generous you have to catch yourself in the moment, and choose to share that chocolate with your friend instead of snarfing it all down your gullet. That’s hard, and even the most skillful people fail at it all the time. We’re only human, after all.

Rudyard Kipling finishes the poem If with the two lines: “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son.” Kipling and Buddha both have the same message. If you can skilfully control your behaviour, you’ll be a man. Which is to say, a human.

The real measure of success isn’t your place on the Wheel of Life. It’s the quality of you’re humanity. So you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Fine. But when you make that $10M bonus do you hoard it away, or give it away? A skilful person can pursue worldly success, it’s a fun thing to do. But they won’t do it at the cost of of their humanity. It’s our skilfulness that makes us human. And it’s being human that is the greatest success.

Everything that’s wrong with the Men’s Rights movement summarised

I had been ignoring the Men’s Rights movement as one of the many pointless things that finds a space on the internet, until I wrote about the male bias in geek culture recently. That column for The Guardian produced a torrent of bile from hundreds of male commenters. Many identified as Men’s Rights activists. The whole thing was an excellent insight in to the deeply dysfunctional and immature psychology of many young – and not so young – men today.

The problem lies in how MRAs react to feminism. They see people talking about women’s issues and their reaction is not one of empathy. It is always, “What about us? Bad stuff happens to us too.”

That’s from this interesting post by The Frogman, who has spent some time interacting with the Men’s Rights movement and, in response to an anonymous comment on his blog, produces this excellent summary of everything that is wrong with the Men’s Rights movement.

I’ve been to the forums. I’ve interacted with the people. I’ve tried to give the men’s rights movement a chance. Unfortunately the people involved are much more concerned about derailing and dismantling feminism than actually solving any of those issues. As if they can’t make any progress until feminism is destroyed.

And.

If the MRAs continue to derail every conversation by making it about them, they are not going to be taken seriously. There is plenty of space to talk about men’s issues. They don’t need to invade the space of feminism to be heard. And if they keep thinking women are the enemy, even though women are actually trying to make progress with some of the very issues you mentioned, they aren’t going to have much luck actually solving anything they care about.

What saddened me about the response of the self-identified “geek males” I engaged in discussion was how utterly blind they were to the common ground they share with feminism. Young men who talked about how they had been bullied and beaten at school, couldn’t see that the corrupt, patriarchal system feminism seeks to dismantle is the same system oppressing both women and men. If MR activists need to learn one thing, it’s that feminists aren’t the enemy.

(I think MRAs need to learn more than one thing, but that would be a start.)

Stop wasting your time on trivia

A thought for the new year of 2014.

There is a lot of noise in modern life. Finding your meaning is sometimes a matter of filtering everything out except the signal you need.

Set aside anything you do that is on this list. Competing for status baubles. Trying to look like someone on TV. Comparing your car / house / job with your friends. Worrying about your hair. Holding a grudge. Eating for comfort. Trying to help other people solve their problems. Running away from shadows. Living like you’re in a soap opera. Chasing after girls / boys / entities. Dreaming of the future. Mourning for the past. Being the narrator of your own drama. Greasing the machinery of power. Sucking up to a clique. Playing online poker. Counting your gold. Caring how others see you. Waiting for the phone call. Waiting for the email. Waiting for the status update. Waiting for anything. Working for The Man. Raging against The Machine. Arguing on the internet. Congratulating yourself for being clever. Berating yourself for being lazy. Any and all time spent in shopping malls. Gossiping. Collecting reward points. Categorising your collection of anything. Working in marketing / advertising. Being a banker. Being unemployed. Being underemployed. Being scared.

If you weren’t doing all of that, what would you be doing?

Go do it.

The Death of Advertising

Autoplay video ads are popping up all over the internet. Facebook will be putting them in your feed soon (yet another reason to vacate Facebook for any serious purpose) But don’t take this as a sign of behemoth advertising dominating the internet. It’s the last gasp of a dying industry.

The real money in advertising isn’t in selling products, but in selling brands. Mass production and automation mean that, with the exception of only a very few items, most products are available very cheaply. If you need a pair of decent running shoes you can get them for around a fifth of the price of fashion statement Nikes. And the same is true across our weirdly out of whack consumer culture.

To keep the appearance of scarcity and hence value in their essentially valueless products, corporations employ branding. The Nike brand attaches sublime and transcendent value to crappy running shoes. Buy Nike and you aren’t just buying shoes, you’re buying an identity in the better world of the consumer culture. Buy a Breitling watch and you’re rubbing off just a little bit of World War 2 fighter pilot glory on your sad ass mid-level sales executive life.

Advertising exists as an industry only because of branding. It’s the talented creatives in advertising agencies – and one must concede the immense creative talented wasted in the flogging of consumer goods to the easily lead – who create the fantasies that establish brands in our imagination. Which is the only place they exist. And for five decades or so advertising has flourished on the back of the most powerful fantasy fulfilment device in human history.

The television is a spectacularly good platform for brand advertising. The vast glowing screen literally puts the viewer in to a state of semi-hypnosis, very similar to starring in to a flickering fire. In this suggestive state they (you) sit for hours watching channels of programming to induce specific emotional states – excitement, happiness, pathos and the like. “Interruption Advertising” can be inserted in to your mind at a time you’re must likely to be influenced. So, if that advertisement tells you young men are only attractive to young women if sprayed in Axe body spray, you’re likely to believe them and go buy some. Sex, fear, power and status are powerful components of advertising, but it’s the platform of television that carries them in to your subconscious dream state.

The internet is a shit platform for brand advertising. We look at it on tiny screens while doing other things, many of them also on those tiny screens. When we look at a big screen, we now usually have a tiny screen as well. Once audiences segue to the internet, they move to a medium where their attention may well never be singularly focused on one thing again. Worse yet for advertisers and their clients, the internet is a GREAT platform for product advertising. If I want a pair of running shoes I can find the ideal ones for my needs at the lowest price with a few google searches. And worse again, because the internet throws people in to extended social networks, it tends to keep people busy. The gaping void of need that brands cater to gets filled up with other things.

Advertisers and the brands they work for are getting desperate. That is the key message to take from the autoplay adds now populating websites. They are trying harder and harder to apply “Interruption Advertising” on the internet, and it simply isn’t working. The contest for your attention is being won by crazy cat videos, circular political arguments and checking your friend’s status updates. No one has time for brands any more, and the brands are starting to panic.

When brands eventually pull out of this model of advertising, which will happen much sooner than most expect, a large portion of the internet and the bulk of the advertising industry will implode. The legacy media brands are clinging on to reduced revenue streams from brand advertising, and you can expect many of the old TV networks and newspapers to snuff it when the internet advertising bubble bursts. And the effects of that bubble popping could reach very far indeed.

The revolution will not be realism

We live in times of immense change. Technology is a tool of change, but it’s the lives and desires of all seven billion humans on the planet really driving change. And, whether you welcome the change or not (I’m among those greeting it with open arms) you can’t doubt that it is very real.

But to shape our changing world we must have ways of envisioning what the world we are entering will look like. In my essay Rebuilding the World for The Ascender magazine I argue that science fiction – as the meeting point of science and art – is among the most powerful tools of planetary imagination we have. And I’m not alone in that perspective.

https://twitter.com/ShyScholar/status/401443861891141632

https://twitter.com/ShyScholar/status/401444251021885440

I write about science fiction primarily as a way of finding the other like minds who share my view that it has great potential. But there are two very different constituencies engaged with science fiction. One is a naturally liberal and progressive community who believe in the genre as a powerful tool for imagining – and hence building – a better world. The other is a community that is naturally socially, and often also politically, conservative. Science fiction for them is primarily entertainment and escapism. The second constituency is larger, but the former is more influential in shaping the genre and guiding its development.

The increasingly frequent arguments about race, gender, sexuality and other forms of representation in science fiction (I put forward this increasing frequency as a good thing, to be clear) arise at the faultlines where the two constituencies of science fiction meet. For the more liberal camp, science fiction is directly about reimagining our world and challenging injustices built in to its current structures. Science fiction is innately political. For the more conservative camp, science fiction is about escaping the problems of the real world, and reinforcing their comfortable preconceptions of how the world is. For this camp, science fiction is innately apolitical, and the protests of more liberal readers about issues of representation are seen as a politicisation of a much loved hobby which fans want kept separate from stressful political arguments.

The two groups will never be fully reconciled. My sympathies lie firmly with the more liberal camp, although I can appreciate some people just want to watch Star Trek without worrying about the worrying racial connotations of the Federation. But if science fiction is to be more than idle entertainment, these are important issues, especially for those who seek to create it.

Because beyond fans of science fiction, we’re still caught in a paradigm of discussing our world as it is, rather than as it could be. Worse, the world as it is, is only the world as we have made it, and we have made it imperfectly and in ways that are often deeply unjust. Realist literature quickly reaches limits in its ability to imagine other worlds that we could create, limits that science fiction is able to transcend. That makes science fiction, at this time at least, a far more potentially revolutionary literature than its realist cousins.

Read Rebuilding the World ; can science fiction help build a better world? At The Ascender.

The Tao that can be told is not the true Tao

I’ve been re-reading the Tao Te Ching this week, inspired to return to the ancient text by my review of Ursula Le Guin’s selected stories for my Weird Things column at The Guardian. The text is one of Le Guin’s favourites, and a life long influence over her writing and philosophy. I first read it around three years ago. The Tao Te Ching is around 2500 years old, and was likely written in China a little while after the time of Confuscious. It’s attributed to Lao Tzu, who we believe may have been a senior Chinese civil servant, but there’s really no certainty about its authorship. It’s made up of 81 verses, and the whole thing can be read in an hour or two. But the meaning in the verses can take much, much longer to consider. Here is verse 1.

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

This is the Stephen Mitchell translation, to my mind the most open and accessible of the dozens of recognised translations from the original Chinese. Here are some alternative translations just of those first four iconic lines:

The Reason that can be reasoned is not the eternal Reason. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.

*

The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and
unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and
unchanging name.

*

If you can talk about it,
it ain’t Tao.
If it has a name,
it’s just another thing.

That’s DT Suzuki & Paul Carus, James Legge and Ron Hogan. Each translation makes use of slightly different metaphors. Hogan’s is the most recent (2004) and is well known for rephrasing the Tao Te Ching in to the ‘down home’ wisdom American readers are comfortable with. And here is Ursual Le Guin’s own translation:

The way you can go
isn’t the real way.
The name you can say
isn’t the real name.

So what does it mean? I’d love to hear your ideas. There are likely as many different interpretations as there are schools of philosophy. If I had read that verse a decade ago, when I had a rather strict scientific materialist worldview, I think I would have interpreted the verse as nonsense or worse. Le Guin, in her introduction to the Tao Te Ching, suggests that no true translation can ever be achieved because the subject itself is beyond communication in language. Which is arguably the point of the verse…that language, concepts, the rational mind, logic…are not capable of communicating what the Tao is. You see, now I’ve been dragged in to trying to communicate it with words and am failing too!

I interpret this first verse as an attempt to define the limitations of the conscious, waking, rational mind. The next eighty verses go on to illustrate how stepping past the limitations of the purely rational mind reveal a world very different to the one most of us believe to be real. A world less rooted in dominance, control, oppression and violence than the world created by the purely rational mind. As such the first verse of the Tao Te Ching really opens up the basic question of all philosophy: is there anything more than the reality the rational mind perceives? None of the names we give to that ‘something more’ – Tao, God, Imagination, The Unconscious – really go any way to describing it.

But this is just how my own limited rational mind sees it. What meaning do you find in the opening lines of the Tao?